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The Great Gatsby in Six Words

05/26/2015 12:17 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016
Shutterstock / Thomas Bethge

"In his blue gardens, men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings, the champagne and the stars."

Each year there are many students who voice their disbelief that literature should be discussed, interpreted or written about. With terrible homework loads and the relentless expectations they get from their parents and from themselves, it is no wonder that they so easily dismiss the nightly reading assignment in lit class. The real challenge, however, must lie in the digital world each and every one of them is embedded in. The instant world of communication and the maintenance of a digital identity require constant vigilance.

Meanwhile, the Internet is providing a steady stream of visual delights as distracting and nourishing as Twinkies were for their parent's generation. Text, its simple black and white letters resting on that nearly obsolete medium known as paper must seem to them as engaging as Latin or Greek was to us as we shot through adolescence. The good news is that there are books like The Great Gatsby and classrooms like mine and periods that are 43 minutes long -- just long enough to discuss one sentence in a serious effort to bring their young eyes off the screen and onto the page.

I will always tell them that Fitzgerald's novel is a poem disguised as a novel. Much of the novel should be treated more as poetry with its own sets of rules and less like a novel. Fitzgerald wrote hundreds of pages of drafts and slowly boiled it all down into the briefest of great novels. The result is a density in diction that begs discussion. It is in his perfect, rhythmic choice of words, a choice a poet makes with each line, that his profound effort at understanding is illuminated.

This lovely sentence is in the third chapter of the novel. Except for a couple important but relatively minor individuals, all the principle characters have been introduced and, more importantly, revealed in the previous two chapters. Despite writing this novel in hindsight, our narrator seems to be on shaky ground and the vibrancy of this New York summer has already been marked by privilege, intrigue, violence, alcohol and love. With this complicated third chapter, Nick will recall his first exposure to Gatsby's parties and to Gatsby himself. This line will tell it all.

After writing the sentence on the board, I dare the students to replace any one of its 20 words. This challenge almost always elicits the question why use the color "blue" to describe Gatsby's gardens. This is when the fun begins. Certainly "green" may seem the more realistic and accurate choice. Without going any further, I ask where else does a word stand out. Soon one student will comment on "girls" in conjunction with "men" wondering if the absence of "women" is simply an expression of Fitzgerald's underlying chauvinism. Then comes the use of "moths" to describe human beings. At this point, the student's questioning of the final string of "whisperings", "champagne", and "stars" becomes inevitable.

Given the fact that Fitzgerald clearly chose these words for more than their narrative contribution, I then ask them to imagine the writer, pen in hand, pausing as he sculpts and edits this sentence. Here lies the intentionality of meaning and, in this case, the intentionality of ambiguity. If those six words can have both those attributes, then, for these emerging students of life, it is not a terribly large jump to imagine a world filled with objects, voices and art all impregnated with meaning and ambiguity -- all there to help one frame a life.

The proof is in the pudding, however, so it is time to unpack each of these words and give veracity to this profound claim. What is a "blue" garden? After much discussion, most felt that the simplest but very important answer is that it is NOT a "green" garden. It is a garden filled with elements not related to photosynthesis or any traditionally romantic notion of a garden. Next, they agree that there is no practical or concrete purpose for "blue". It is not describing smoke or swirling waters. The truth is that the reason it is there is simply for the color itself and what comes with it. It will only take a couple more chapters before a student will identify the repetitive presence of certain colors in the novel, always being used in a similar, simple context. Not confused with other colors or qualified with a descriptive adjective -- just the color itself.

Like the modern art of our world, the color is begging a response. What happens in a "blue" garden? What makes that garden "blue"? What is the color "blue" to us? This is a lovely moment. For many students, something as basic in their life as a color may now have a dimension to it not previously imagined. This is often a good time to go around the room and comment on the colors of blouses, t-shirts and, in my case, ties. Discussing the different shades of power as expressed in blue, green, red and yellow ties according to the unwritten rules of Wall Street never fails to sharpen their now color sensitive perceptions.

While not the most important of Fitzgerald's word choices, the use of "girls" instead of "women" triggers the widest variety of responses from young feminist outrage to enthusiastic young male affirmation. This is a critical point in the class discussion. A Socratic teaching style in literature opens the door to all types of conversation. While digression, with its anecdotal charm, is the lubricant for engaging and relevant textual analysis, the trick is to avoid the cul-de-sac of entertaining but ultimately off-topic conversation that may include the whole class but exclude the text itself. It is a fine line since to illuminate a word or a phrase may mean to shine a light elsewhere. The color "green" illuminated the "blue".

The same trick applies here as we substitute "women" for "girls" in order to appease the feminist outrage. They immediately recognize that the sentence has lost something. The maturity, the implied stability of "men" and "women" does not fit with Gatsby's parties, with what we already know about 1923 New York. "Men" and "girls" suggests a flirtation, not with just each other but with convention -- a flirtation with everything that a "blue" garden has to offer.

Having cut their teeth on the true abstraction of color and the lovely choice of "girls", the students realize that referring to the party guests as "moths" is no trifling matter. The interpretations spill out. A "moth" has little self-control, drawn to a light until it extinguishes itself. The act of relinquishing oneself to such desire clearly obliterates any awareness of what awaits. A "moth" is usually a muddy mix of colors often indistinguishable from each other. It is not a butterfly but it can, nevertheless, fly. A "moth" contributes nothing, aesthetically or otherwise, its origins and its demise equally insubstantial.

If you step on it, it will turn into a small pile of grey ashes, ready to join the Valley of Ashes, introduced to us in chapter Two, lying in-between the glittering mansion of Jay Gatsby in West Egg and the seductive yellow windows and twilight of New York City. It is a horrible description of a human being. The students look at the word and their interpretations of it with anxiety and weariness -- is this where we are going in this book? Are we no more than ugly, ashen figures bereft of will or purpose?

This does not sit well with their hard working nights, busy extracurricular lives, loving (even doting) parents and their ambitious college admission dreams. This does not square with the plan that each of them in their own way has signed up for. And they are right. For Fitzgerald and all of us, the fate of a "moth" is insupportable, existentially soul-crushing. So this young, hard drinking romantic of a writer extends his hand and tells us why we, the "moths", are going to this party and our fate.

With each word isolated on the board, I ask the class to identify the many associations we attach to each. With "whisperings", they immediately come up with secrets. Whispering in a student's ear a bunch of gibberish, I watch as the class recognizes the power and, most importantly, the allure of a whisper. It may be a secret but it is so intentionally public. It is as much keeping the world out as it is inviting in the recipient of the whisper itself. It is not silent. Its power comes through its suggested noise. Finally, it evokes the mystery of the unsaid, the intimate and, of course, the illicit. What does it mean to be drawn like a "moth" to the "whisperings"?

What are we looking for in a whisper and why is it irresistible? Adolescents are particularly good at unpacking a whisper's allure. A whisper captures the insecurities of their high school lives. One student suggests that the social network they all participate in is only an elaborate, digital forum for whispering. It is a vast, veiled world of constant communication of which you only get a glimpse but you know you are a part of. No wonder they spend each and every free moment with a phone in hand. Do the guests of Gatsby's parties, those uninvited "moths", go to his parties to find their space in a social and existential world which, for them, is every bit as unnerving and alluring as the digital one occupied by their 21st century peers today?

The students are sophomores and most are sixteen, an age in our country where much happens. The great majority of the kids will have their license by their junior year and many will get drunk for the first time. Parties, alcohol, drugs and sex are all encroaching in various ways on their lives. Boys may find shelter in video games and girls in perfectionism; however, they are all aware of the changing landscape of their lives. So the conversation around the word "champagne" is always slightly pregnant with giddy anxiety. Why does Gatsby choose "champagne'? Why is "champagne" always the romantic, festive drink of choice? What gives "champagne" that special celebratory place that even the best red wines or most obscure whiskies or cognacs can never hope to occupy? The answer does not come naturally to their sixteen year old minds but if I press hard enough soon a hand shoots up a says, "bubbles."

Why, of course, soon the whole existence of "champagne" as a symbol is revealed with those innumerable, ever reproducing but slowly diminishing number of bubbles being at the very heart of this drink's place in our romantic hearts. The act of opening a bottle of champagne -- pregnant with anticipation, requiring a bit of skill and experience and always touched with a tinge of danger. This act of opening can be done under a towel or it can be used to send a cork flying across the room or can be truncated by the elaborate act of a skilled swordsman. Its sexual and romantic implications fall all over the students and it becomes clear why this word sits in the middle of this remarkable threesome, connected to "whisperings" by the temporary state of the "bubble" itself. The bubble's fragility is its power just as the whisper's very brief appearance is its.

To ask the students what the antithesis of these two objects are takes us to yet another realm, to another reason why those "moths" are drawn to Gatsby's huge parties. A whisper is private and soft and breathy as opposed to the loud, jarring voices of partygoers, whose words are often not meant for anyone in particular but themselves. Champagne without bubbles is not only flat in every sense of the word, it is an object bereft of purpose, of any vitality. The students are left to speculate on a life without "whisperings," without "champagne."

By this point it is time to let go. The last word, "stars", stares at them on the board and needs to be taken home by each student in his or her own way. I ask them as we move on, where else have they seen such a pregnant use of "stars" in our readings. The most often cited example is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the excerpt from "Nature" that we read earlier in the year, Emerson challenges the reader to look up at the firmament that is produced by our world each and every day. Why we so rarely "look up" lies at the heart of his challenge to us as narrow-minded and unfulfilled human beings. His lovely provocation is to imagine that the stars only showed up every thousand years - what would be our relationship to them then. Clearly, their "capacity for wonder", harnessed in their rare visits, would be fully recognized by our troubled, yearning souls.

A couple weeks later, when the papers come in, a fairly high percentage of the textual references will allude to this sentence. It helps to spend 43 minutes on half a dozen words; however, I believe it is more than just that. The sentence sticks in their minds as they read this most American of novels, a story that, despite its 1920s origins, still resonates in the dreamscapes of Americans no matter the age. At my daughter's wedding, in our backyard, amidst a night not unlike a restrained and intimate version of a Gatsby party, I got up to give the "father-of-the-bride" toast. It ended with my right hand extending a glass to the stars, my left hand holding the carefully executed notes of my toast, and my eyes looking at the multitudes of men and women, asking them to celebrate amidst the "whisperings," the "champagne," and the "stars." I had no doubt that those words fell on knowing ears.